In this interview, Tiffany Coates talks about her life as an international motorcycle adventure rider and tour guide. She also gives three tips for anybody considering heading off into a life of adventure.
In this podcast I interview an international female adventure motorcycle rider and tour leader who’s ridden over a quarter million miles across Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, and more – much of it solo. Why does she do it? What are the rewards and what lessons can she pass on that you can use? Listen to this interview to learn that and more.
My name’s Doug Greene. I’m an author, videographer, photographer, podcaster. But at my heart, what I really like doing is exploring and being a messenger. I, whether I’ve done that through journalism or photography, and now video, I love to go capture either my experience or somebody else’s and bring that back and share it with others. Well, this podcast is about that too. This is called “What makes them Tick?”. And I’m interviewing fascinating people with these extraordinary stories and I really want to …
You know, it’s pretty cool they did all these things. But the other part I’m really interested is the WHY. What are these people like underneath that drives them to do these things? And um, one of my favorite pastimes is this thing called “adventure motorcycle riding”. I got into it when I was in Thailand. Met a woman in a monastery. She talks to me into going on this trip and it was the highlight of my almost nine months in Southeast Asia.
Well, today I’m interviewing a woman named Tiffany Coates, who is an extraordinary adventure motorcycle rider. It takes a special kind of person who wants to just get on a motorcycle and take off and go anyway. But she has been, well let me give you some of this things here. She’s traveled well over a quarter million miles on a motorcycle. She owns a motorcycle that she’s had. It’s the only motorcycle she’s owned. It weighs what, 400 pounds? 450 pounds.?
At least 230 kilos the last time I weighed her. Okay. So that was no luggage, no fuel.
Take that and multiply it times 2.2 and you’ll get the pounds. And um, she has traveled from the top of Alaska down to the bottom of South America on, I think it’s called the pan American highway trip.
Um, so trans America, trans America,
She has ridden all through Africa. She’s been in Central Asia, she’s been in Siberia. She’s ridden up to Everest base camp from the Tibetan side. She’s done much of this solo and much of this, a bit of it with others. Her first big trip apparently, which I really want her to start off on, uh, was when she decided she wanted to go to India. And we’ll start right there. Tiffany, thank you for joining us. I’m really looking forward this, I’ve always been fascinated by your Facebook posts and I was like, “Where in the world is Tiffany?” And what would compel somebody to want to do this? Um, but why don’t you start off with that? Uh, the trip to India that really got you hooked into motorcycle riding. How long you took, how you got into, why you even thought you’d take it away. Okay.
Well, hi Doug. It’s great to be here and looking forward to the interviews. India. Well, I’ve always been a traveler. My dad was in the army, so we always used to move around when I was growing up. And then when I left home, I sort of continued traveling with a backpack and went around the world. And then one day I was talking to my best friend Becky, and I said, “Oh, I think I fancy going to India next.” And she said, “Oh, India. Yeah, I’ve never been, I’d like to go, okay, we’ll go together.” And we decided we’d go over land because there’s a lot of interesting countries between England and India. And then one of us said, well, “let’s go by motorbike.” And it was like, “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll go buy motorbikes. Fantastic idea.” Now we didn’t own motorbikes, we didn’t have licenses is that we didn’t know how to ride.
And Becky had never even sat on one in her life. I used to go out with a guy who had a bike. So I’d been on the back a few times. And on the strength of that I was going, “Oh, it’s fantastic. It’s great.” That was it. We’ll go by motorbike to India. So obviously we had to learn how to ride. First of all, we went out and did five-day intensive training course. And in the UK, it’s a very strict system that they have. The test is not easy to pass. Um, barely half of people will pass it first time. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s there. I say it. That’s why the standards and a lot of Europe is like that as well there. I said that’s why the standards of people’s writing are quite often better from European countries than some other countries. Um, so yeah.
So we did the five days intensive course on 125s. And by day three we thought we were evil. Knievel’s were sat at the traffic lights waiting for the lights to change. We are doing thumbs up each other, revving up gang. Next stop India and the instructor yelling through the radio might confine you to at the back. Behave. Yes, Rob. Okay. Um, but um, yeah, so the end of the five days we each took our tests and we passed. And that test you’re riding for 45 minutes with an examiner riding right behind you barking out orders through the radio. microphone, you know, “take the next right. Take a left.” You have to do hill starts, you turns all sorts of different maneuvers to show you’re safe on the roads. Anyway, we both passed and we were delighted. So suddenly there we are with our light paper license.
At the end of the five days, we take our tests, we’ve got our licenses, and we’re then telling people “we’ve got motorbike licenses, we’re going to buy a motorbike and we’re going to India.” Now we decided we’d take one bike between us because we haven’t got much money. So this is much cheaper and it’s simpler. You can’t lose each other if you’re on the same motorbike. So that all makes sense to us. And also, you know, what were the exactly the same level of experience or inexperience. So you, we didn’t mind sharing the riding. I know sort of, you know, a lot of pairs of people who go traveling, whether they’re a couple or just friends or whatever, usually one of them would be more experienced and maybe we’d be like sitting on the back going, “Oh my gosh” about the riding of the one in front.
So that’s it. We’ll go two up. And, um, we, so we asked people, and this was 18 years ago and not so many, um, adventure motorbikes on the market then. So we were told, “You know what, there’s not a lot of choice but the best bike, it’s a bit big and heavy maybe, but the best one would be an RAC or R100 GS, the BMW, um, that will carry two people and all their luggage and camping and gear over the thousands of miles of varied terrain to India. So we said, “okay, yep, that’s what we’re looking for.” So we started looking for one. It took a while because people just don’t sell those bikes. Um, but then they keep hold of them and well, I can see why I’ve still got the bike now. And a mechanic friend of ours, um, phoned me up one day and said, Okay, I know someone selling an RAT GS, that’s what you’re looking for?”
And I said, yeah, yeah. He said, it’s got a good engine and the guys, you know, a good guy, so we’re not going to be sold a bike that’s gonna break down on the way to Dover from London. So we said, “Oh good.” I think it was, and it was good price as well. So we had to make our decision there and then though. He had several other people interested in buying it, one of whom was going to fly down from Scotland. So without seeing it, we said yes. Um, we went around the next day with the money and we saw the bike and we said, “Oh crikey, it’s huge.” It’s really big. We hadn’t actually seen a GS before. Um, and of course our experience is all on the 125. So the five days riding on 125s and suddenly we’ve got this 800 CC bike.
So just for the record, this is like six times bigger motor than what you had before, right?
And then it’s actually in some change.
Yeah. So we’re like, Oh, right, okay. And we paid for it. We handed the money over and we each instantly dropped the bike. So our mechanic friend, luckily he’d gone with us to pick it up. He gave us his car keys and he said, “Right you two, I think you’re going to be driving my car back. I’ll ride the bike.” And we said, okay. So, and we went back to his workshop and we met up there and we wondered if maybe we’d bought the wrong bike. But we decided, well we might bought the wrong bike, but let’s practice riding on this big bike.
So each day after work we would cycle Dan to his workshop, pushed the bike along the footpath to a big car park at the end of the road it was an office car park. So in the evenings it was empty. And then we would be practicing on this office car park most evenings of the week, although we were doing like two jobs each, so it didn’t have an awful lot of spare time either. Um, and we cracked it. We learned how to ride this big motorbike and then we were allowed out on the streets. So then we’re out on the streets and Martin, the mechanic would be following us with his Motoguzzi and sidecar and one of us in the sidecar and the other one riding the bike. And we called the bike Thelma. And so we were learning from each other’s mistakes and we were learning in central London. This is elephant and castle. There’s hardly anywhere busier in the world. And I think if you can learn to ride a big motorbike in London, you can learn to ride … you will be able to ride anywhere in the world.
It’s so congested, the traffic’s very aggressive. The streets are narrow and not made for all this congestion. And so you have to be an assertive rider and take ownership of your space because those big lorries are just going to push you out the way. You’ve got to be a defensive rider and expect that cars won’t have seen you and pull out. And also you develop that spatial awareness of exactly how wide your motorbike is because in London you have a motorbike so that you can filter through the traffic or lane splitting as it’s called in the States. You filter through the traffic and get to the front at the traffic lights. At roundabouts, wherever the tech, the traffic is either very slow moving or stationary. You know, motorbikes were expected to go up the middle, so you’d be going up the middle.
And I can always remember one day, this was in the early days and I sat there and I’d started going up the middle and then a bus. It pulled out of a bus stop and I suddenly realized, Oh no, I’ve got a huge articulated lorry on this side of me and a double Decker bus on that side of me. And I’ve got about that much space between each of my handlebars and the vehicles, either side of me. And I thought, right, okay. And then suddenly from behind me, over my shoulder, I just heard the shout, “Get a move on!” Motorbike bike couriers, scary guys, motorbike couriers, all, they’re all on their scooters, their bikes, their whatevers, and they’re like, “come on, Getta move on. There’s space in front.” Peer pressure. So I thought, right, I’ve got to go. Deep breath, look straight ahead, throttle ease off the clutch and just ride straight. And I pulled forward and I made it. And for me that was a real turning moment. I thought, yeah, I can ride this bike. So Becky was at a similar, you know, the same stage as well. So we cracked it. We thought, right, we can ride this bike. And so that was two months after riding the bike. We set off from the U K um,
I can imagine all the gear you had to take anyway for a trip of this sort at, you’re traveling across two continents almost. Yeah,
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s very much trans continental. Do you know what? You don’t need to take that much stuff. So we had our camping gear, cooking gear. We talked to various people about what spare parts and what stuff we would need in our toolkit. We had repair manual, first aid kit. We had one fiction book between us to read. So we used to take it in turns to read at night and the other one would get the Haynes Repair Manual to read. Um, there’s one color picture in that book. I can tell you that page 42, the spark plugs. Um, so yeah, we would, yeah, we had to travel like very few clothes. But if you think about it, that’s all you need. Yeah. You’ve got your clothes, you shelter, your food, and the parts that will help keep the bike on the road.
So when you decided, when you finally took off and you really loaded her up and you took off, did you have this feeling of like, “Holy Moly. What have we gotten into here?”
Not really. Um, we had kept meaning to practice with everything loaded up, but actually in the event we only got a top box and um, yeah, it was a motorbike courrier’s topbox and we weren’t sure what to do with it or how to fix it on. But we did have the parcel rack on the back of the motorbike. So we just used some wire, we drilled some holes in it, we painted it black, first of all, cause the bite was black and yellow. And then we drilled some holes in it and just attached it with wire coat hangers to the back of the bike. Um, you know, over the years that was sort of gradually modified into more appropriate fixing.
Did you have side cases at that point?
So, yeah, I guess so the bike came with the BMW plastic cases, which I really liked using. I know they don’t suit everyone, but they suit me and the way I travel. But maybe because I didn’t know any difference at that stage. So, um, yeah, we set off, we crossed Europe. Um, yeah. And we’re still very much beginner riders. We’ve been riding for two months. Um, we’re suddenly, you know, we’ve gone from 230 kilogram bike to about 40 kilograms of luggage plus our weight. So in total, everything is gonna weigh about six times more than either of us. So we’re trying to balance six times my own body weight on tip toes because we hadn’t realized quite how tall the bike would be as well. So we’re on tiptoes, reached ground. So we would be dropping the bike. And I always remember day three of the journal, we’ve reached Germany.
We’ve only dropped the bike twice today. So, and this was the smooth tarmac of Western Europe. Um, but it would be things like roundabouts or traffic lights, pulling up, and the rider, you know, she’d put her foot down, whether it’s me or Becky, and maybe there’s a bit of gravel on the road. The foot would slip and the bike would tilt and then that’s it. It would go over. And it was always slow motion stuff. It wasn’t dangerous, it was just embarrassing. But we coped. We’d pick the bike up and just get going again. So we crossed Europe down to Turkey, around Pakistan, India, traveled around India for a bit. And then we reflected on what we’d done and we just said, wow, “this has been the most incredible fun.” You know, it’s been a journey, but it’s been a fun journey. Had lots of ups and downs.
So, ya know, and we’re still going strong and we’ve still got some money left. So why don’t we see if we can get to Australia. So from India, um, the natural route would be through Myanmar, but in those days it was closed, only open to foreign vehicles to cross it two years ago. So we went to the East coast of India, we found a shipping company and we sent the motorbike past Myanmar into the next country along which is Thailand. and we wrote Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore. Indonesia was closed to foreign vehicles as well. So from Singapore we shipped the bike down to Perth in Australia. And then we rode from Perth, the length of Australia through to Sydney, by which point we had absolutely no money left. But luckily we’ve got some good friends there and so we could sleep on the couches until we got jobs and we saved up money to rent a room. And yeah, we lived and worked in Sydney for a while.
I want to backtracking, there’s some of the countries, some of the countries you’re talking about here. I mean Turkey has a little bit of unrest. I understand. I haven’t been to Turkey yet, but I understand it’s sort of where East meets West. And then you’ve talked about Iran, which I think a lot of people have, you know, because of the media and all this stuff. Um, there’s a feeling that our Iran’s a dangerous place and also Pakistan. Now of course you’ve got Al Qaeda hiding there and all of that. But um, uh, talk about those countries. And one reason I ask this is when I was in Asia, I flew to Nepal and um, we stayed over in Dhaka one night and one of the guys in our, on our plane had ridden a bicycle from London to Katmandhu and he had gone through, um, India and Pakistan, I don’t know if he went through Iraq?
No, he wouldn’t have gone through Iraq.
So he went through Iran and he loved it. He said his favorite country on the entire ride was Iran. And then I ran into some motorcyclists later on who had gone all through that area and they said the same thing. Really amazing people. Um, great tarmac, I guess. Yeah. So, um, but maybe you could talk about your experience of being, especially a woman riding either alone or with another woman in countries like Iran and India and Pakistan. Um, what’s that like? Okay. And were you scared like, you know, were, were there times when you were just like.
That’s such an American question!
Of course it is. I’m speaking for Americans here.
You might want to cut this out, but, um, in my experience, America is the most scared country in the world. That’s the one that’s the one where everyone’s first question is, “Weren’t you afraid?” And I’m like, what? Yeah. And like other people was that, yeah. People from other countries would be like, “wow, how exciting. Wow. What things did you see?” But Americans are like, “Isn’t it scary when you approach?” Obviously not all Americans, not all Americans, but
I’m going to keep that in by the way. So Iran, Iran or Pakistan pick one.
Well, Iran, probably a real eye opener because not that many tourists go there. We knew we had to be covered up. So the last town in Turkey, we went to the market and explained to the guys in the market – because there were no women working in the market. And that was our first taste of Islam, of how few women work in service industries. They tend to remain in the house or they might have other sort of jobs. Shops, et cetera, tend to be male dominated. So we’re in the market and we said, “right, we’re going to Iran, we need the outfit that’s appropriate for Iran.” And they said, “Shador”, we said, yeah, “okay, shador.” However the slight complication is that we’ve got our motorbike gear and our helmets and it’s got to fit with this stuff.
And they were like, Oh, right. So we had, we tried on some pretty shapeless – sack clots would be the way to describe them – and so we ended up with these black polyester numbers with big shoulder pads, which hold the shador away from the body. Um, they’ve got sleeves that go all the way down to the wrist with buttons at the rest and then it buttons right up to the neck and then a scarf. In fact, I’ve got it in the attic. And then a headscarf comes around and pins under the chin because you weren’t even allowed to show your neck in public. So no hair, no neck in public. And the only skin that can be seen apart from the face was the hands. Literally that. So even though it was hot weather when we were there and when we were off the bike, we would be wearing sandals.
We had to wear socks with our sandals so our feet weren’t on show either. So that was quite an eye opener. We bought them at the last town. And then as we reached the Iranian border, um, we stopped the bike and we put on the chadors and we crossed the border where, and … And now the border guards were quite intrigued. Um, but yeah, and they, we weren’t even sure if it was legal for women to ride motorbikes in Iran. No one could tell us. And we didn’t want to ask the Iranian embassy because then if we got an official note, then we wouldn’t be able to get in. So we just thought, right, well let’s just rock up there. Um, Iranian friends had said they’d never seen women ride motorbikes in their home country. So it was a bit like, Hmm, we rocked up there.
The guards, but just sort of, “Oh, okay.” They had no precedent set it on. So they just sort of let us go ahead. We got into Iran and we had a fantastic time there. The hospitality was just incredible. The people were so friendly. And it’s the only country in the world where it’s obvious it’s women riding a motorbike because of the chedors. Every other country in the world, because of the helmet, the jacket with the body armor in, so the shoulder and the body shapes all look bigger. Um, everyone just assumes it’s a man riding the motorbike. And so obviously once, you know, when we stop on our travels, take the helmets off, people realize, “Oh, okay, that’s a woman.” But in Iran as we’re riding … every village we’re riding through every time it was like, “Ooh, that was two women there.” And in fact we met up with some other travelers who first encountered us overtaking them on one of the highways through the desert.
And it was some guys in the land Rover and we were just riding along enjoying the smooth tarmac and we just went whizzing past them … because their land Rover couldn’t do more than about 50 miles an hour. And apparently these guys turned to each other and said, “Did you just see what I saw? Was that nuns on the run?” Because with the black capes flowing in the wind, yeah. We look like these, a pair of nuns racing across the Iranian highway. Anyway, we later met up with these guys and they were like, “Oh wow. It wasn’t a Mirage. It’s true. It’s two women.” And we traveled with them with for a bit. Um, yeah, in Iran we were treated as in some ways as honorary men because we had our own vehicles. Um, but we had the best of both worlds because we’d go back to people’s houses and because we’re female we’d be allowed into people’s houses, like men traveling through, couldn’t go into anyone’s home. But we’re women.
Yeah. Yeah. Because the, you know, it just wasn’t acceptable for a non-blood relation man to be in the house of, you know, in someone else’s house and see the women. And behind the scenes, the women have taken off their chedors. They’re in t-shirts and jeans just like anyone else. Um, so yeah, we’ve got to go back to people’s houses. We had the most amazing meals in the houses because eating out in Iran was a bit of a disappointment. But in the houses, the food was very different, really, really tasty food and the hospitality, like I said, just incredible. So Iran was a real favorite of ours. And then we reached Pakistan, so yes, it’s an Islamic country.
But we reached the border and the, um, head officer of the customs in on the border with Pakistan invited us into his office and he said, “welcome, Madam. Um, you can take off that chedor. We’re a free country here in Pakistan.” And so we could remove the chedor, which meant for the first time our heads were uncovered in public in nearly a month. And it felt really odd, really, really strange. We’d got so used to having to always be covered up. And um, but yeah, it’s very Islamic country in Pakistan and in fact we encountered fewer women there because there’s a, quite a proportion of women are living in purdah, which means they don’t leave the household and the gardens. So, um, other people do their shopping. Very rare occasions they would venture out and they’d have male members of their family with them, um, to accompany them and keep them safe, um, when they’re outside. So actually we, yeah, we encountered fewer women in Pakistan than we had in Iran.
But we adored Pakistan and actually it was our favorite country on that whole ride. The scenery is just stunning. And we’d originally planned to just ride straight across Pakistan to India. But we met other people who were talking about the Karakorum highway. We started thinking, “Oh well that sounds exciting.” Now in our naivety as overlanders, we hadn’t realized exciting roads can mean dangerous, maybe tricky to write, that kind of thing. So we headed off up the Karakorum highway. Oh my goodness me. Yeah. We had a few spills up there on the gravel. It’s a narrow road that follows the Indus River deep into the heart of the mountains. The Karakorum highway leads deep into the heart of the Himalayas. Three mountain ranges meet there and wherever you look, there’s these massive mountain peaks topped with snow and there’s this narrow road following the Indus. We rode it right up to the very top, which is the the Kunjar Pass where it reaches China.
We didn’t have Chinese visa so we couldn’t cross over. But to be honest, the snow was about five foot deep on either side of the road at that point, so we weren’t keen on venturing any further. We knew on the Chinese side there’s fewer villages until you get right down to the plain. There’s a herd of yak in the distance, so got up to the border, something headaches were about 5,000 meters at that point. Um, we took some photos and then we turned around and rode back to the nearest village. We were up up in the Karakorums quite while. We were there in November. So not the warmest time of year to go, I must admit. And then we hightailed it back down to the warm plains of Pakistan. And again, we’re treated as honorary men because we’ve got our own vehicles. So again, we’re invited into households where the male travelers hadn’t gone. Guys would show us their guns and the ladies would show us their kitchens. Yeah, we, yeah, we loved Pakistan. It was very cheap to travel in as well, which always helps when you’re on a bit of a budget. And yeah, we were sorry to say goodbye to Pakistan, but excited to be finally reaching India
And then you go into India. Um, actually, I don’t know if we, let’s, let’s, uh, let’s, let’s back up a little bit now. Let’s go back to your childhood. What kind of upbringing did you have where you were, you ended up being such a, a person, you know, somebody that has wanderlust obviously and is open to adventure and sees the world as a friendly place and um, all of that. I mean it’s, even in the UK where there’s a lot of adventurers, it’s not everybody that gets up and does a trip to India on their first motorbike ride, you know, to up on a big bike no less.
You know, we never realized it was such a big issue about being two-up on the bike. We were both cyclists, so we just thought, “Oh okay, we can take each other on the motorbike because we’re not having to do the work”, the pedaling like you would with a bicycle. Like I’ve given people, you know, a ride on the seat of my bike while I do the peddling and vice versa. So yeah, we really didn’t realize that was such a big issue about riding two-up because we did it right from the very start. So what led me to this path?
Yeah, let’s go back. You were born in a small town, what? Yes. No. Where’d you grow up?
Um, um, well that’s it. My dad was in the army. Um, in fact he joined the army because he wanted to travel. He was 17 and in those days the world wasn’t as accessible as it is now. So he decided to join the army to see the world and then he met my mom. She was 19. Within five months they were married because she wanted to see the world as well. So they literally moved straight to Germany when they got married. And then a couple of years later us children started arriving. Um, and we were all born in different places. And have any of us been back to where we were born? I’m not sure if we have. So yeah, children born in different places, lots of different army camps. My first school was Cantonese kindergarten because we were stationed in Malaysia and it was very much um, sink or swim childhood.
My mom just sort of sent us out into the world and you just got on with it. It was great. I think that’s what gave me the naive optimism of just sort of, “Oh, okay, let’s go to this school where I don’t understand anyone. I don’t like anyone but it’s school. That’s where children go.” And within two days I’m coming home speaking Chinese and my mum thought, “Well okay, she’s doing okay.” Yeah. So it was sink or swim childhood, um, a close sense of family. So I’ve got a strong sense of who I am and just um, a curiosity about the world. I think that’s all combined to give me this sense of “Right. There’s the big wide world. Let’s go see it.”
Talk about this feeling of um, you have a strong sense of who you are. Where do you feel that, how do you experience that?
Ooh, so a strong sense of who I am. I come from a very close, loving family. Sometimes geographically we’re all far apart from each other, but we look out for one another, and we love spending time together and we think through a lot of different experiences over the years in different places. And so I suppose we were like a mini gang. Yup. I’d be in new schools a lot. And so it’s always “Okay, new girl in class. Got to make friends from scratch. That’s fine.” And there’d usually be like two or three siblings in the same school as well. So there was always that sense of “Yep, there’ll be people around, you know, who know me and love me.” And that’s what keeps me as the person I am.
Talk about the feeling of that though. Um, there’s a lot, there’s a lot of people that don’t have that feeling I, I think. And it gives you a nice sort of base camp, you know, to use mountaineering lingo from which to go forth.
Okay. So the feelings and emotions of who I am. I think because I feel loved and totally for who I am, it gives me the confidence to go into strange and unusual environments, maybe alien places. And I just sort of know, I’ll cope. Other people who’ve got confidence in me or have always had confidence in me. So I think it’s the self confidence to venture into unknown places. And someone wants to talk to me about comfort zones and he said about motorcycle travel can take you out of your comfort zone. And he said, Well, where is your comfort zone, Tiffany?” And I had to think about it. And I thought, yep, I’m a home bird. I love being at home. I love where I live here at Land’s End. But I also love being out on the road and they’ll always be tricky situations. Um, maybe situations where I’m a bit scared. But you park up the bike and put the tent up, you sleep the night. I’ve slept on forecourts of garages, on the decks of fairies, um, or Oh, any number of places that may be weren’t the most hospitable. Um, but always felt that, you know, “I’ll get through this” and I never felt out of my comfort zone. Yes, maybe it was a little bit uncomfortable at times, but it was always like, you know, this will pass, this is going to come good. And such words always has done. So. Yeah. So like I say, a naive optimism.
Were all your siblings as I’m adventurous as you or are they,
um, sort of in their own way? Um,
and where are you in the lineup? Are you, Oh, I’m second in command and there’s three of you?
Yeah, yeah. Three girls, two boys.
being a woman traveling … you’ve certainly you’ve had some challenges, especially as a single woman going into some …
We use the word solo, Doug, versus single.
All right. Solo.
Cause you don’t say that to a man, do you? You’re a single man doing your chest. That’s solo adventures, isn’t it? I didn’t think you were being sexist. I think you just,
yeah, yeah, no, that certainly wasn’t intended.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw you put that on the, um, on the questions you sent through on the email, “single woman”. I was like, dude, day, let’s use the word solo. I don’t want this to sound like a dating agency interview.
You never had any problems getting along with people and the places you were at? Nothing that stands out?
You know, like any situation in schools. Um, well particularly for teenagers, um, where, you know, fitting into a new school, sometimes there’s a period of adjustment. But um, no, it was always good. Yeah. And particularly because it was mostly army schools and army, um, environments and so everyone in the army is used to people coming and going. So yeah, I need the new girl for about two days because suddenly there’s another new girl or new boy in school.
Okay. Let’s, let’s go back to your trip down. Let’s go to Australia. You finished your trip more or less and you base camped at Sydney and you’re working.
Yeah. Okay. So Becky and I are both working in Sydney and we’re saving every penny we can because we’re a long way from home and somehow we’ve got to get back after several months of working bit more than several actually. We have some money saved up and we can start thinking about the return journey. Naturally we started looking at shipping and then we suddenly thought, wait a minute, that feels like cheating. We’ve written here, maybe we can ride home. And when you’re in Australia, when you look at a map of the world, wow, there’s Australia, there’s the U K and in between over here is Africa. And we just said, wow, we’re looking at this map, “Africa, I’ve never been there. No, me neither. Well let’s go home through Africa. Great idea.” So we get very excited and we start making our plans. We were looking at shipping Thelma from Sydney into Cape Town, which is a straight line on the map. So that simple. And then Becky met the man of her dreams and decided she wanted to settle down with him and that actually Africa wasn’t going to happen for her now.
It wasn’t an easy decision for her and it was hard for her to tell me. And it was stunning really. It was like, “Oh, Oh, okay.” So the riding fellowship is breaking up while I’m still going through Africa. And by this point I’d worked out how to pick up my bike on my own. And I’ve always said, “you should never travel with a motorcycle unless you can pick it up.” So if there’s two of you, if you can pick it up between you, but if you’re on your own, don’t travel with a bike you can’t pick up on your own. So I had that cracked and so I thought, well yeah, I could write Africa on my own, but “Oh, I think it’d be nicer and more interesting with someone else.” So then I started sending out messages to friends and Maggie Dunlevy from Galway in Ireland.
Good friend of mine got in touch and she had her motorcycle license, no big bike experience. But as I’d already proved, I said, “That’s no barrier.” You’d get yourself to Cape Town. Thelma and I will be there and we’ll ride home through Africa and it’ll be a piece of piss, which a bit of a British saying that means easy.
So yeah, Maggie gave up her job, flew out to Cape Town. And by that point I’d shipped Thelma over and I had a job and was working in Cape Town. I’ve got a good work ethic in our family. You know, if you’re anywhere more than a few days, you better start looking for work and get some money in. And she joined me, I taught her how to ride Thelma on the car parks of Cape town, and then we set off up through Africa. However, Africa is the toughest continent – the deserts, the rivers, the lack of infrastructure, the seasons as well as political situations, civil unrest. It’s, I think it’s the most exciting continent as well. So we made our way up through Africa, um, having various adventures along the way. But oh it was fantastic being on a motorbike and riding through a herd of elephants and suddenly, Oh yeah, there’s elephants, this side, elephants, that side. And this was just on a normal road. It wasn’t going through a game park or anything.
There’s another direction I want to go here. It’s talking about what it feels like riding. There’s a lot of people that are maybe listening to this that I’ve never written a motorcycle. I have, I, to me, there’s almost nothing more., um, I don’t know how to describe it except it’s just this sense of truly being out there exploring. To me it feels like the ultimate way to explore because you’re in the elements, you can go fast and light. You have to essence down the stuff you have to only what really matters. And that in itself is like a whole experience. Um, well how do you experience riding? What’s the allure of it to you? Like you’re traveling through Africa and you’re out here in the explorer’s edge kind of in a way, some sort of edge and what are you feeling? What do you, what’s the allure? What draws you into it? Describe that kind of inner world.
Yeah, that was interesting. Then as you asked about riding and exploring the world by motorcycle and you were describing some of the sensations you feel. And my heart was actually beating a bit faster because it was reliving some of those sensations myself. Like you said, you’re, you’re part of the elements. You’ve got the cold and the heat and you’ve also got the smells. Um, Australia, you can smell a dead kangaroo two miles away. Um, but you’ve also got the good smells. You’re going through a eucalyptus forest or Madagascar riding through the vanilla fields. Oh my goodness. Made just clouds of vanilla scented air. And then when you’re going up over the mountains, and at first you’re not aware that you’re ascending and going up in elevation, but gradually you realize the air feels crisper and then that’s when you start thinking, “I wonder what elevation we’re at?”
So there’s that crispness at the air, the temperatures, the smells, you really get every sensation on the motorbike. Um, and obviously the sounds as well. So you’re very much part of the environment and part of the landscape that you’re riding through. And you’ve also got that freedom to go wherever you want because a motorbike can go along a foot path. If someone’s walked along that you can generally take your motorbike along there as well. And for me, that’s the beauty of being on a motorbike because right from the start I wanted to be self sufficient. So I’ve got the tent and the camping gear, the cooker, and always at least a couple of days food. And if we’re planning on camping out, we’d be carrying more food and water and you can go absolutely anywhere and do whatever you want. So it’s that total independence and freedom.
Yeah, I love it. It’s such a great way to experience the world. Okay, so let’s …
Back through Africa … there’s a punchline at the end. You keep taking me off track and you say you don’t want to do the editing. Should I finish Africa? And then you can pull out what you want. Okay. So Maggie and I rode across Africa through the sands, the rivers. That was the shocker for me. You know, I turned up in Africa sort of feeling maybe, maybe a touch of arrogance, thinking, okay, I’ve crossed Europe, I’ve crossed Asia, have crossed Australia, now it’s just another continent. But I hadn’t realized just what a lack of infrastructure means. So riding through rivers where the water comes up to the fuel tank and just thinking, “Oh my goodness, keep those revs going.” I’m riding through the mud. The mud of Ethiopia was just something else.
And we didn’t know what knobbly tires were. So I’d had a tire change in Kenya and we’d only been able to find one tire in the whole country that would fit the bike. So, and apparently it was a, yeah, it wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t just a road tire. It was a bit of a hybrid one, but it certainly wasn’t a knobbly. And before we knew it, we were in Ethiopia going through mud that was well over our knees. Um, but if you don’t know any different, you just go for it. So actually I think I was better then than that than I would be now. Cause I think nowadays I’d be thinking, crikey, can’t get through that without knobbly tires. But in those days there was no one to say, “Oh Tiffany, you’ve got the wrong tires.” And we just went for it. So somehow made it through with the toughest part being crossing the Sahara through Sudan.
And we reached Egypt, got into Israel across the Sinai Desert and then from Israel, a ferry, um, up to Greece and then rode back across Europe. And I got home and like I’d mentioned my mum earlier – sink or swim upbringing for us kids – and she saio, Oh Tiffany, you’re back. And you went off on that motorbike. Now bearing in mind, nobody in my family rides motorbikes. It doesn’t worry them that I do. They just think it’s a bit odd. Like someone dying their hair orange or something, so, Oh yeah, she rides a motorbike. And so she said, Oh yeah, you’ve been off on that motorbike. And you, you said you were going to India and you said you’d be about eight or nine months. You been gone two and a half years. Where the hell have you been? She was actually joking because I had written and I made phone calls and you know, and emails.
So I had stayed in touch and she knew where I’d been. But yeah, it’s true. I’d set off with that motorbike with my best friend and we’d just sort of said, “Bye everyone. We’ll be back in about eight or nine months.” And it was two and a half years before I got back. And it was, yeah, it’s indescribable, sort of that whole big adventure of that amount of time spent with my motorbike the whole time. And I was hooked, you know, I just, from that point on, I realized I can’t envisage going traveling without a motor bike. And so that’s where the rest of the journeys unfold. Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia. Um, Timbuktu, outer Mongolia onto Japan. Uh, central Asia, the “Stans”, Tibet, Beijing, Madagascar. Um, Easter Island. Yeah. Everywhere with a motorbike now.
So let’s going back to Africa for just a second. You said crossing the Sahara was probably the most challenging part. How so? What was that like? What is …
(Laughs) … the man asks “How can Sahara be the most challenging part,?” With two-up on a very heavy motorbike. I had no off-road training. Um,
So were you riding in sand?
Yes. Trying to say no off road training. So this was me learning to off road. Um, we’ve been through some rough stuff in Pakistan, little bit in India, but um, Oh, Africa, country after country where it’s like, “Oh my God, this is really quite scary. We’ve just got to go for it.” It’s rocks, gravel, mud. Um, so I learned to off-road on the bike with no one to advise. The only thing I knew was that you suppose you have to keep your revs up. Yeah. So we had, we had the Intercom between the two helmets and the one on the back, you know, and if it was a particularly tricky bit, the one on the back is saying “revs up, revs up” as a little mantra for the one on the front sort of thing. Okay. “revs up, revs up.” Cause this was a scary and it’s hard.
You’d be like right, “hold on for this bit.” And just like really rev up going through the mud and stuff. Um, and there’d be times, so going up some steep hills now I’d done a bit of horse riding when I was a teenager, so I knew that going uphill you stand up to help the horse. So I say going up, so I thought it could be the same with a motorbike. So going up Hill I’d be like, okay, “I think we both need to stand up now.” And we’d both stand up, be leaning forward on the bike and then going down the other side or no, you definitely sit down and going downhill. So we’d sit down and going down. But um, there’d be times where, and also I think if you’re the rider and you’re standing up, it’s not so nice with the person on the bat because they’ve got your bum in their face. So it’s like, “okay, let’s stand up together.” And there’d be times where I’d be like, right, “I’ve got to sit down, but you’ve got to carry on standing up.” And that’s just me being mean to my pillion passenger. “Keep standing, keep standing” as I’m riding along.
You were still on a road though, right? I mean, we’re just taking off in that there’s one where you’re just on the sand dune.
Yeah, yeah. That’s um, Timbuktu that very orangy sand. That’s Timbuktu picture. But Sudan, we’re on the main road and it’s, yeah. Yeah. Nobody else would call it a road. And in fact, as we’d headed up to Sudan and we’d have this sort of hellish time with all the margin, everything in Ethiopia, and we’d been told that from the Ethiopian border with Sudan, we’d been told, yep, there’s tractors that take everyone from the border up to the nearest road, which is over a hundred miles away and it takes three days. Um, and the tractors tow Land Rovers. Now I’m sure you’re quite aware of the capabilities of land rovers that would go anywhere. Do anything well on these tracks.
Well no, not even the Land Rovers can get through. Only the tractors can. So they tow Land Rovers or they put them on trailers behind the tractors. And so we were heading up there and we’re battling our ways through the mud. And the one thing that kept us going was tractors. We won’t have to ride hallelujah. So we’re singing, we’re all going on a tractor holiday. Really looking forward to it. We get to the Sudanese border and the border guards know me a little bit surprised to see two women on a motorbike, but you know, they get a lot of weird things at their border post. And they say “Madame, good news. It’s the dry season now. There’s no tractors. ” And we said, what? So no tractors. We said, “no, no, no, we want the tractor.” And he said, “no, no, no, you don’t need to pay for it.” You can just ride.”
We said, “no, no. Where is the tractor please? We want to tractor.” And he said, “Madam, the tractors have gone home. You can ride. Take that route there.” Oh, we were gutted. Absolutely gutted. Been looking forward to on the back of his tractor, just lounging around for three days. And instead we had to ride it. Oh my goodness me. You had asked about the toughest part of our journey. I think that’s been probably my lowest point. We, we were just dropping the bike and dropping the bike. I was doing the majority of the riding just because I was a bit more confident or maybe just a bit more gung-ho off road than Monkey was. And we’d just come flying off the bike time after time going through sand, it’s soft dirt and it’s, there’s some really, really deep ruts.
So because of the mud and only tractors getting through, okay, you can imagine ruts that are several feet deep with a narrow bit between them. And so, you know, it sort of would look obvious. “Okay, well let’s ride along the narrow bit on top so it’s nice and flat. We’re ride along there.” But then suddenly, you know, the tractor’s gone off lurched off into a field or something. So that bit along the top has disappeared and suddenly the bike’s gone down or it just crumbles away and the bike’s gone down. Ends up upside down in a rut, two feet deep. So then we’ve got to pick up this big heavy bike that’s upside down. And so then, okay, well we’re ride in the right, but the ruts are really narrow and you’ve got to really, yeah, the tension is high and you’re gripping the handlebars, just sort of staying in the rut.
And of course with the airhead motorbike in the twin engines it protrudes out on either side, and it’s like a ricochet effect, you know, one there was like barely, yeah, not even an inch to spare, um, on either side of the engine cases. So we’d just end up and you needed a certain amount of speed to keep moving because it’s loose dirt as well. So you’ve got some speed and then suddenly the bikes ricocheting within this rut and then that’s it. You come flying off. Um, so that combined with the sand, um, yeah, brought me really low and we weren’t carrying enough water. That was my biggest lesson learned from the first crossing of the Sahara. Crossing the Sahara for the first time was hard. Riding the sand and not having enough water carrying capacity. One of the good points was we were drinking the local water everywhere.
So we’d pull into a village and we’d be thirsty and there’d be a line of goats and camels lined up at the village well. And someone would be hauling on a bucket and tipping the water out into a trough for the animals to drink. And we’d go join the queue of animals and we’d always get back into the front and they’d be giving us these buckets of water and we would just be the lugging it down, um, and just soaking ourselves with water because of course it was intensely hot as well. So yeah. And it was good just being able to drink that local water. Quite often some of those very, they’re very impoverished communities. It’s self sufficient lifestyle. And often the only thing people could offer us was water. So being able to say, “Oh thank you” and drinking that water without having to go, “Oh hang on a minute, stop. I’ve got to put some tablets in this or I’ve got to filter this water before I can touch it.” It was just great about saying, “Oh, thank you for this water and just being able to drink it down. You know, your water’s good enough for us.”
Did you ever get sick from that water?
Um, no. Not from drinking the water. I mean there’s times when you get sick. I mean I’m, I’m lucky I’ve got a bit of an iron stomach. Um, I can do pretty well with stuff. Sometimes I’ve eaten stuff and I’ve thought this ain’t bad anin there and I can feel my stomach battling it. And maybe other people I’ve shared the meal with, sometimes they’ve been pretty ill and I’ve managed to sort of, you know, I’ve not got a sick as them. Um, so yeah. So I’m lucky. But um, yeah, we were drinking the water in India as well.
But that wasn’t to prove anything. It’s get, it was that naive city. We’d crossed all these unusual countries and just filling up our water bottles everywhere. In Turkey. We got Shawnee turkeys. All right. It’s part of Europe. And then Iran, there’s very little information about Iran and it’s a very modern country. So we’re still filling up our bottles from the taps in the hotels or from, I’m just trying to think. Well when we’re in, um, cause we’re camping wild as well. Every country we went through, there were points where we were just camping wild. Um, and so we’d just asked people if we could fill up where we could fill up water bottles and so it’d be directed to village pumps or just taps or people in shops would fill our water bottle.
I think too though. Um, because you were on the road so much and you were drinking this water all along the way that your own body chemistry, your own resistance to or your body’s ability to tackle it was good because you were kind of building up in a, I don’t know, your system …
Immunity. Yeah. Yeah. No, I totally agree with that. Because we were drinking the local waters and we were traveling slowly and overland. So it’s not like flying into a developing country where you’ve gone from first world sanitation and purification to developing country where you need to perhaps be careful with the water because we are traveling overland and it was a gradual process and we’re drinking,the water is we’re going. And our body’s adjusted. Um, we became immune to the bacteria in each country and because we are drinking this water, we just didn’t get sick from the food so much. Um, there was the odd occasion.
But India, neither of us got sick at all. We put on weight in India. Oh, I love Indian food. When we arrived in India we were thinking, Oh no, we shouldn’t be drinking the local water here because this is, you know, everyone knows that. And then we thought, “well, wait a minute, we just crossed the border.”
We arrive in India and we know we’re not supposed to drink the water that, but we’d been drinking in Pakistan and that was just quarter of a mile away across the border. And we thought, well, what can the difference be? So we thought, well, okay, we’ll carry on drinking the local water until we get sick. And then we know we have to stop drinking it. But then we just didn’t get sick. Several months in India and we didn’t get ill from the food, from the water and nothing. We actually put on weight. So that made me think, Hmm, if I’m able to drink the water in India and I know there’s going to be a lot of shocked people gasping “Nooooo, don’t do it!”
Um, I just thought, well, I’ll continue with this theory of drinking the local water and maybe it’ll mean I don’t get as sick. And for me that’s worked. I’ve drunk the local water. Every country I’ve been in. Um, and yeah, like I say, it works for me. I know it wouldn’t, perhaps wouldn’t work for everyone. And you know, I don’t want hundreds of emails from people going, “Hey, you get cholera, you get typhoid, you get this, you get that, you shouldn’t do that.” It works for me. I don’t say to anyone else that they should do it. I just know it’s, you know, it’s something that I do. And you know, I’m not going to be changing anytime soon. However, I did have, when I went to Timbuktu, I had a doctor traveling with me, Toby. German doctor and Toby said, “Tiffany, I know you drink this water. I’m not drinking this water. I’m only drinking bottled water.” I said, yes, fine Toby, you know, fine. So I’m filling up my water bottles and bags and everything from chaps and Toby’s buying bottled water. Toby had diarrhea for 16 days. Whilst I didn’t. Resting my case with Toby.
Let’s go on to um, top three tips you might have for people that want to do this. You’ve led an exciting life on the bike, you’ve explored all over the planet. I don’t think you’re going to be stopping anytime soon based on your enthusiasm about it. If somebody else wanted to get into this, what would you advise them to do?
Okay, so somebody wants to go on a motorcycle journey and it could just be to the next country or it could be to another continent. I’d say my number one tip would be “Follow your dreams.” If there’s something you want to do, go for it. You can achieve it. Number two tip, and this may be linked in with number, is “If you’re canvasing other people’s opinions, don’t ask people who have never done it.” Talk to people who have done motorcycle trips. They’ll be the ones who will give you a clearer idea and maybe won’t be so scared about what you could be encountering. You’re going out to try an adventure and let’s face it, there’s been plenty of other motorbike travelers have already done that journey who’ve got the stories to tell and have survived.
So, and then another tip, um, I think on a practical level, the one that I learned the hard way was “Make sure you can carry enough water for your needs.” You can arrive in places where, yeah, they’ve got water available but they haven’t got bottles and stuff that you can take away with you. So you need that water carrying capacity. So I always carry, um, well I, I always wear my Krieger hydration pack now, so I’ve always got water on me because that’s really important. Just keeping those constant sips of water maintains the hydration in the body and also helps maintain concentration. Um, and also carrying some bottles that I fell and having a flat water bag or bladder that folds away into my luggage. But if I need to carry extra water, I can fill it up and drop it onto the black box at the back.
And another top tip and one of the simple ones is Smile at everyone that you meet.” You’ll be in a strange environment and you won’t look or sound like the people there, but give them a smile, be welcoming and they’ll return that welcome. Learn the language. Just even if it’s a difficult language, learning to say “hello” in their language can go a long way. And “thank you”. If people have given you something and you can say thank you, everyone appreciates hearing their own language, even if it’s badly mangled in the pronunciation. Um,
I understand you offer trips for women too. You take, you guide like you the women of Ladakh. I believe or
I started as a mixed group guide. The women-only ones is recent.
Okay. So, but you take people, you lead some of these trips now. Can your talk about that?
Okay. Right. So I now have the dream job as an international motorcycle tour guide. So I’ll take people in Africa, Asia and South America for motorbike trips. It’s the trip of a lifetime for so many people to be able to explore these far off places on two wheels. And I’m there to guide them, um, hotels, places to stay and eat and the best routes to follow. And I love it. I get to share my passion, which is motorbike travel. And it also brings out the mother hen in me. Just sort of making sure you know my group’s okay. Yep, yep. They’re all okay. Well let’s rev it up a bit. Now let’s go up this difficult mountain pass. Um, and the sense of achievement that my riders feel and my sense of pride in their achievement as well of having ridden something that is way beyond their comfort zone and the amazing feeling that you get having achieved something like reaching Khardung La, which is the highest road pass in the world that’s in Northern India and it’s over 18,000 feet. So yeah, it’s the dream job for me.
How experience to these riders need to be. Um, they obviously can’t like just be coming in and learning how to ride a bike with you in there.
Okay. Okay. So how experienced do the riders have to be? Well, I’ve been working for Globe Busters for quite a number of years as a guide and also with HC travel as well as doing freelance guiding. And it’s a variety of trips that I’ve worked on from a London to Beijing trip with a group of 12 riders who did all have to have a good experience of off road riding. And we assessed their riding before, you know when they first booked, just to make sure they have good enough standards – because that is the toughest commercial trip in the world. And then there’s for example, “Ladies in Ladakh”, the only female only trip in the world and it’s tough. It’s the Himalayas, you’re riding Royal Enfield motorcycles. There is no road quite often. There’s some river crossings. And yet I took, the very first year I went, one of my riders had no off-road experience.
One of the others had just two hours of green-laning experience, which is what we call non tarmac roads here in the UK. So basically these two women didn’t know how to ride off road, but I showed them how to do it. I mean I learnt the hard way with no with no one to show me, very heavily laden bike, two people on it. So I was like, Oh yeah, don’t worry about this, keep your revs up. We do some practicing on the way up to the tougher parts of the mountain. We’d practice on some of the quiet side routes where we encounter mud and gravel and rivers and they’ve all made it. So ideally people have got some off-road experience and ideally they haven’t just passed their license. But if I met someone now who said she wanted to come to Ladakh with me this year, and this year’s trip is in June, and she’d say, she hasn’t got her motorbike license yet, I’d say, right, get your license in the next month. And I’ll guarantee that I’ll get you up to the to of Khardung La.
And what’s in your future now? Where, where else do you want to go that you haven’t been? What adventures still lie in front of you that you look forward to?
Well, I think I’m, I think probably all adventurers are the same in that there’s always somewhere on the horizon that we’d love to explore and visit. And for me, I’ve got Borneo, the Philippines, it’s more of the Island nations now. I’ve crossed every continent, some of them two or three times and it’s the island nations that are drawing me in since my three months in Madagascar where I didn’t take Thelma. I flew out there, I bought a motorbike and then sold it at the end. That’s really opened my eyes to the fact that yep, I can arrive in an Island nation, buy a motorbike, ride it around and then sell it. Which opens up a whole load of possibilities for me.
Wow, and where can people get more information about you?
People can get more information about me by following me on Facebook or on my website, which is http://tiffanystravels.co.uk/. We don’t get .com in England and Google my name. You’ll come across it and if people are considering their own trips, I’m happy to answer questions.
All right. Thank you very much for being our guest on “What makes them tick.” I hope all of you have gotten a little bit more insight into what would compel a woman to bride solo around much of the world. And one two up, which is some ways almost seems more amazing than going solo. Thank you very much, Tiffany.
Oh, thank you very much, Doug. It’s been fun.
Learn more life lessons from extraordinary people. Find all my podcasts and video email@example.com and do you want to see the world on two wheels? You can see Tiffany’s website and get her contact information at http://tiffanystravels.co.uk/. Thanks for joining us and remember, get out there and make your life extraordinary.